Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to hand over its top-secret source code to attorneys in class-action suits against the automaker, a potentially important victory for attorneys who claim that electronics can cause sudden acceleration.
But within hours of that deal being filed in federal court in Santa Ana this week, a federal jury in New York ruled that at least in one case, Toyota was not to blame for sudden acceleration.
The two developments underscore the complicated and contentious nature of the ongoing litigation over sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
Since Toyota announced the first of a string of recalls related to the problem in late 2009, well over 100 suits have been filed against the automaker in state and federal courts.
Although Toyota has settled at least one of those cases, it has insisted its vehicles are safe and reliable and has vigorously fought allegations that Toyota and Lexus cars contain electronic defects.
This year the federal government released a report finding no flaws in the automaker's electronics. Auto safety advocates and lawyers suing the company have since called the report biased and incomplete.
Mark Robinson, one of the attorneys leading two massive consolidated cases in the Santa Ana venue, called agreement over the source code, which Toyota has called its "crown jewels," a key precedent.
The source code is the underlying program that runs the software on a vehicle's onboard computer system. In the sudden-acceleration cases, attorneys say they will be closely looking at the code that controls the vehicles' electronic throttle.
"We're digging like I've never heard of anyone digging before," said Robinson, adding that he thought it would blaze a trail for other product liability cases involving vehicles with onboard computers. "Up until a few years ago, there was no need to do something like this."
Although the specific details of the security around the source-code sharing process have been sealed by the court, Robinson said his team would hire as many as 12 software and electronics experts to review every aspect of the source code used on every Toyota model. That process could take a full year and cost as much as $1.5 million, he said.
The goal, Robinson and other attorneys in the suits say, is to isolate a potential fault in throttle management or diagnostics software that could cause sudden acceleration.
Toyota said it believed that by sharing the source code, it finally would be able to put allegations of an electronic glitch behind it. "We are confident the evidence will show that no such defect exists," the automaker said in a statement. "We hope the source-code review will proceed expeditiously so this case can move to trial as soon as possible."
The first of the recent sudden-acceleration cases to reach trial, involving a 2005 Scion tC that crashed into a tree, was resolved Thursday in favor of Toyota. A federal jury in Central Islip, N.Y., deliberated less than an hour and ruled that the vehicle's floor mats did not cause the crash, contrary to what plaintiffs had argued.
"Toyota is pleased that the jury found no merit to this unintended-acceleration claim," the automaker said in a separate statement. "We believe this case sets an important benchmark for unintended-acceleration litigation against Toyota across this country."
Almost as quickly, however, attorneys still in litigation against Toyota downplayed the relevance of the verdict.
"I don't think it will affect our cases at all," said Steve Berman, who is leading scores of suits against Toyota alleging that sudden acceleration hurt the value of its vehicles.